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For Kids, It’s Rabbit Vs. Chicken

Tom Downey has worked alongside Members of Congress, helped run a presidential campaign and even tackled the confusing legality of redistricting.

But the most intense political drama Downey has witnessed as of late is Rabbit vs. Chicken ’08, the battle for the presidency of the Children’s Museum of Denver.

“It’s coming down to the wire,” said Downey, the executive director of the museum. “People are in a tizzy here. … This is where it matters.”

Rabbit vs. Chicken might not have the same national recognition as the presidential contest, but it’s gaining traction in Denver — and political veteran Downey knows a good contest when he sees it.

Downey’s political career began when he became a staffer for Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), a gig he landed shortly after his college graduation two decades ago. After several years on Capitol Hill, he left for law school, but he didn’t escape politics entirely — his wife, Lori Fox, worked for former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.), the Department of Energy and other executive branch agencies.

Eventually, the pair moved to Colorado, where Downey joined now-Sen. Ken Salazar’s (D) campaign for state attorney general. After Salazar was elected in 1998, Downey became an assistant attorney general.

Downey quickly garnered respect in the state’s political circles, which led to a gig managing former Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign in Colorado — although Downey is modest about the whole thing.

“When I was doing it in 2000, we knew that Colorado wasn’t in play,” he said. “It’s not false modesty. I wouldn’t have been picked if Gore had a chance of winning. They would have sent in a professional from Washington.”

Downey’s proudest political moment, however, came in the courtroom. Acting as the official legal counsel for Colorado Democrats, Downey helped defeat a 2003 effort by Republicans to reshape the state’s Congressional districts.

After that effort, Downey practiced law at a private firm, but he soon found himself seeking a career path that would let him spend more time with his three young children.

He found that gig at the children’s museum, where daughters Cate, Ella and Meg often join him for various programs, meetings and other events.

“I got very lucky,” Downey said, adding that while he still puts in long hours, “I get to do it with my kids. It’s a different kind of long hour.”

And lately, Downey’s hours have been filled with overseeing the presidential contest between a fluffy, cuddly white rabbit and a tough — but lovable — chicken who is reminiscent of Uncle Sam.

Downey insists the two candidates are purely a learning tool — neither reflects Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) nor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), or even the political parties. Still, museum officials often find parents insisting that the two cuddly characters are reflections on the current political scene.

“We thought it would be purely an educational exercise,” Downey said. “The truth is, we found that there are adults that are trying to microinterpret everything that is happening.”

The two candidates do have clear policy differences. Rabbit favors cookies, while Chicken supports ice cream, for example. As for nonfood-related issues, Rabbit is against naps after dinnertime, while chicken is against naps before lunch, leading political observers to wager that a bipartisan agreement to nap after lunch could soon be reached.

Voters are the children who visit the museum and learn about the candidates’ platforms through colorful slideshows and interactive activities, sometimes even getting the chance to meet with the costumed candidates themselves.

Then, they get to head into a voting booth and cast their ballot. “The kids are full of pride when they walk out,” Downey said.

Those voters who are especially inspired by their candidate of choice can even make a campaign poster to show their support. Slogans have included: “Vote Rabbit: Vote for a quick, sharp eyed candidate, not a weak fluffy one.”

It’s all part of an effort to get Denver’s youngest citizens engaged in the democratic process during one of the biggest political events in decades, said Zoe Poltawec, the museum’s marketing director.

“Whenever there is anything exciting going around town, we try to do something for the youngest community members,” Poltawec said. “This was a great opportunity. There’s so much going on, but not for the littlest guys.”

The winner of the contest will be announced Saturday. There will be an inaugural bash soon after — either a chicken dance or a bunny hop.

Downey pointed out that the pair are running for president of the museum, which is technically his job. But Downey — who hasn’t endorsed either candidate — promised that the election will be fair and impartial.

“I promise to have a smooth transition,” he joked.

The Children’s Museum of Denver is located at 2121 Children’s Museum Drive. For more information, call 303-433-7444.